An Emotional Rollercoaster (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

Alexander Prior conducts the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Where? Concert Hall, QPAC
When? April 14, 2018

Queensland Symphony Orchestra and 2018 Artist in Residence Sergio Tiempo took audiences on a journey last Saturday night with An Emotional Rollercoaster, performing diverse works by Debussy, Ginastera, and Brahms under the baton of guest conductor Alexander Prior.

25-year-old Prior, Chief Conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and guest conducting An Emotional Rollercoaster while Alondra del la Parra is on maternity leave, held a strong presence on the podium, a very passionate and emphatic conductor using sweeping gestures and his whole body to move the orchestra.  
Alexander Prior conducts the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis
Dr Simon Perry, a lecturer at University of Queensland’s School of Music, gave the pre-concert talk, which was quite academic and focused heavily on Debussy’s work and its parallels to the writing of French poet and critic Mallarme, on whose poem of the same name Debussy’s Prélude á "L’après-midi d’un faune" (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) is based. The pre-concert talks are usually very well-catered to laypeople like myself, but this one seemed to require a rudimentary understanding of symphonic structure and functionality, which unfortunately went mostly over my head.

The first work of the evening, described by Dr Perry as being both “iconic and iconoclastic”, was Debussy’s Prélude á "L’après-midi d’un faune" (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), which opens with a beautiful flute solo and progresses in a way that leaves you feeling languid and nostalgic. Mallarme’s poem, published in 1976, is considered a pivotal text in the evolution of literary symbolism and describes a faun (half-goat, half-man) who dozes in the woods on a warm afternoon and dreams of nymphs and naiads. He fashions and plays a reed pipe, represented by the opening flute, to express his enchantment and half-sated, half-lustful state as he watches the nymphs. Mallarme was suspicious but ultimately pleased and “deeply moved” by the work. For me, the piece clearly invoked imagery of a forest – the harps in particular create the image of running water, and the strings of a breeze blowing softly through the trees on a hot afternoon. Queensland Symphony Orchestra created a truly immersive experience in this piece.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis

The second work, composed in 1961 and first performed in Washington in the same year, was Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No 1. This piece was an emotional rollercoaster indeed – dissonant and ominous at times, rising to dizzying crescendos at others, the piece  takes audiences on a journey of extremes and, after the dreamy state evoked by Debussy’s Prelude, brought the audience jolting back into their seats. Created in what Ginastera himself referred to as his “neo-expressionist period” and with ties to the magic realism movement pioneered by Argentinian writers and reaching its peak in the two decades leading up to the composition, this work makes use of a complex interrelationship of dissonant chords, leaving the audience wondering what will come next.

Referred to as a “one of the most thought-provoking pianists of his generation”, QSO’s 2018 Artist in Residence Sergio Tiempo played with incredible speed and precision, but made the entire performance look so fluid and easy as his fingers flowed over the keys. He and conductor Alexander Prior had a clear rapport, and the concerto concluded dramatically to rapturous applause.

Sergio Tiempo, photographed by Peter Wallis

Sergio Tiempo also gave an encore performance of the second of Ginastera’s three Argentine Dances, noting before he began that “…you won’t believe it is the same composer.” After the wild ride of Ginastera’s Concerto, his Danza de la moza donosa ("Dance of the Beautiful Maiden") was certainly much gentler, although finishing unexpectedly on an atonal chord which left the audience in anticipation rather than certain that the piece had concluded. Again, Tiempo’s playing was a pleasure to witness. I always enjoy watching the reactions of the orchestra to encore piece played by guests – it is telling of the incredible level of skill that other musicians at the top of their field are awed and impressed.

The third and final piece of the night was Brahm’s Fourth Symphony, a return to a more conventional symphonic structure – as Dr Perry explained in the pre-concert talk, Brahms was the reluctant champion of a rear guard of musical conservatives contending with the emergence of a new style of composition led by Liszt and Wagner, despite his music not being inherently conservative but continuing in time-honoured forms and genres. It was mesmerising to see the synchronicity of the entire orchestra and the evening ended on a high with their beautiful rendition of the piece.

Ginastera’s Concerto and Brahm’s Fourth were also performed on Friday April 13 as part of QSO’s Morning Masterworks program. For details on upcoming performances and to book tickets, visit the QSO website.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis